The Dudley Farm Museum

Family Farm

Like history itself, The Dudley Farm Museum is a work in progress. The 1844 homestead, located on Durham Road in Guilford, was the residence of generations of Dudleys—an old Guilford family dating back to 1639—until late in the 20th century. Today, with its rambling Greek Revival house, 11 outbuildings, heritage garden and farm animals, Dudley Farm is an off-the-beaten-path destination worthy of any local history buff’s itinerary.

Director Beth Payne gives a tour of the house, which is furnished with antiques dating from 1870 to 1910, nearly all of which were donated by North Guilford residents, many of them Dudley relatives. She points out artifacts ranging from the ordinary (canning jars, milk bottles, household tools) to the unusual (a bugle from World War I, a melodium that still plays) to the downright quirky (a commode with a needlepoint cover). Along the way, she shares stories about Napoleon’s role in the creation of canning processes, the antimicrobial properties of copper countertops and the surprisingly late invention of toilet paper. Heavier topics are noted, too, including the local activities of the Ku Klux Klan and the arrival of Connecticut’s slave ships.

While the house seems settled into its late 19th-century self, the farm-as-museum is still evolving. Around the dining room table, the museum’s trio of summer interns—two from Central Connecticut State University and one from Wellesley College—are working on an interpretive plan for future tours that will tell a more cohesive and thorough story. “We’ve been winging it since the museum started,” Payne says. The plan will help develop the story of “what the Dudley family did here and how farming was done here.” The interns have spent the last few weeks elbow-deep in the archives sorting, shelving and beginning to catalog thousands of items: newspapers, diaries, photographs, clothing, receipts, even games.

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Outside, there’s more to see. The front portion of the “Big Barn” is set for restoration as part of a larger $300,000 project, which Payne says is nearly fully funded. The sweet smell of hay stacked in the loft above lingers in the still air. This is a working barn, staged for the care of the farm’s oxen, sheep and chickens. Its rear additions, already restored, are open for self-guided tours when the house is open. There visitors will find the old windmill wheel, a cream separator, granary bins and more, all items that will need to be catalogued in the future.

Later, I wander on my own up to the garden, where hops are climbing trellises about as tall as the house. They’ll be used by DuVig Brewing Company in Branford to make Dudley Farm Harvest Ale. The sheep in a nearby pen are startled to see me. In a larger rear pasture, a massive oxen looks me over, then goes back to snuffling through the clover while his brother sits placidly, face to the sun.

A row of old millstones fronts a stone wall giving way to tall summer grass. They hint at a source of income for the Dudleys in their flushest years: a bone mill, a gristmill and a tannery that used to stand across the road as well as a lumber mill about a mile away. A chicken coop and a blacksmith shop are back here behind the wall, near a Guilford Land Preservation Trust trailhead. A sugar shack, Payne tells me, is just down the hill. So is a large yellow barn, which houses the Dawnland Collection of Native American Artifacts, curated by Branford resident Gordon Fox Running Brainerd. Open on Saturday mornings during the Dudley Farm Farmers’ Market or “by chance or appointment,” it showcases artifacts of the area’s indigenous people, including arrowheads, stone tools and a dugout canoe. That collection is also in the process of being catalogued.

The last direct descendant of Erastus Dudley, who built the farm, was World War II veteran David Dudley, who turned off the electricity, shunned installing indoor plumbing in favor of the outhouse and lived in just three rooms of his 17-room home until his death in 1991. He left the home to the North Guilford Congregational Church and the North Guilford Volunteer Fire Company with the intent that it be sold and the proceeds divided. “Neither of those organizations wanted to see this place torn down, although it was on the verge of being condemned at that time,” Payne says. Instead, a foundation was created to turn the farm into a museum.

Running a history museum wasn’t part of Payne’s plan. She worked as a dietician for over 30 years and spent three years in the Peace Corps before returning home to Connecticut. Like much else at Dudley Farm, her job is evolving, winning her over from a self-proclaimed “bit of a snob about antiques” who once found the Dudley house an ordinary reminder of her grandmother’s house to a devotee who puts in many hours beyond her official part-time job. “The more I learn, the more fun it is,” she says. She’s grateful for the help of college interns, and she brought herself up to speed with a two-year course in small museum management run by CT Humanities.

Next up for Dudley Farm is completion of “the Big Barn Project,” as well as reconstruction of a milk house on its historic site; an update of the chicken coop and pen; new public bathrooms on the site of an old ice house along with “a narrative of how ice was collected and stored in the old days”; and improved signage, according to the museum’s summer newsletter. The farmers’ market, held every Saturday through October from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.—about 18 vendors usually attend—and special events including Harvest Day in October, a holiday open house and Connecticut Open House Day draw hundreds of visitors.

Attendance has been steadily increasing over the years, Payne says, and there’s a lilt of optimism in a recent newsletter note from president Bill Black, who writes “how lucky we all are to have The Dudley Farm in our community.” The museum’s stated mission is to “preserve the region’s agricultural heritage” so that visitors can “experience farm life as it once was,” according to a brochure. Indeed, it’s still possible to stand on the hill overlooking the house, tucked among trees beside its sentinel windmill, and imagine yourself, for better or worse, in an earlier time.

The Dudley Farm Museum
2351 Durham Rd, Guilford (map)
Thurs-Sat 10am-2pm, Sun 1-4pm (May-Oct)
(203) 457-0770 |
$5 suggested donation

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 3 depicts museum interns Emma Deary, Karlyn Marcantonio and Morgan Gudelski.

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